Back in the pre-iPhone era, before our fancy contact whatzits and Siri-call-this-person shenanigans, we had to remember things called phone numbers. And occasionally, we’d find ourselves remembering the numbers more by the way our fingers punched the buttons, and less because we actually remembered the numbers. I can think of times when someone would ask for a friend’s number, and instead of spitting it out, I would picture the order I tapped out the buttons on the keypad, and repeat the number from the pantomime.
That’s called muscle memory, and it takes multiple forms. We see it in swinging a golf club, riding a bicycle, and entering keystroke shortcuts when trying to empty our inbox. Muscle memory allows us to accomplish a specific task almost without thinking about it. It’s a seemingly-effortless way to maximize our output while minimizing our time investment.
But how can we use muscle memory for ministry? Better, how can we train our teams to use it when serving our guests? Before we get there, an endorsement and a warning:
The benefits of muscle memory in ministry
Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours theory in his book Outliers. It’s the idea that the true masters of a discipline – whether star athletes or best-selling authors – only become geniuses in their fields by applying 10,000 hours to practice and repetition. In ministry, we might call that experience. We might even be able to to make a case for wisdom: we know what we know because we’ve experienced both the good and bad, and now we know how to architect the good while avoiding the bad.
Ministry muscle memory takes our experience and makes for a better experience for others. If an information table volunteer has muscle memory on the iPad used to sign someone up for an event, they’re not going to fumble through the apps while the line backs up into the lobby. If a parking team builds collective muscle memory, they will anticipate and respond to the needs of each other and the needs of the incoming crowd with smaller efforts and greater results.
Muscle memory can be a really good thing.
The dangers of muscle memory in ministry
A few years ago I had a conversation with a friend who runs a successful commercial kitchen. I asked him about the output of his team; how they were able to keep pace during meal rushes, and do so with relatively little mistakes, food waste, or wasted time. He said that at one point, everything had become systematized. The entire kitchen operations had been reduced to a highly-refined series of charts: x amount of x food should be prepared at x time to take care of the x customers who will be coming in at x time. The plan was highly efficient and a huge success.
But it was his conclusion that surprised me. He said, “After achieving near-perfection in eliminating food waste and maximizing time, I pulled the charts off the wall and we went back to scratch.” The reason? “Our kitchen staff was becoming effectively lazy by depending on the charts. They forgot how to think on their feet and respond to new challenges.” In the same way, relying on our muscle memory can have negative consequences. We can phone it in rather than being fully present. We can become automated robots with our guests rather than living, feeling, responsive servants. We learn to depend on our skills rather than on the Holy Spirit.
Muscle memory can be a really bad thing.
Developing your muscle memory
Let’s assume for a moment that we can use muscle memory for good and not for laziness, for greater spiritual impact and not for dependence on ourselves. How do we develop it? I think there are four simple ways:
1. Determine your values. What does your ministry team stand for? What are you trying to accomplish? What does your guest services team do that makes your guest services team your guest services team? Maybe you stress guest follow up. Perhaps you prioritize the first weekend experience. Decide what you believe in, and embrace those things as both your basics and your north star. (You can see our five values here.)
2. Document your processes. Collaborate with your team and decide on the simple seven- or 15-step systems to make the weekend run smoothly. You might need multiple systems on multiple teams to pull off multiple things. Every task will call for a separate system. But documenting how you get there will build a standard that aligns your volunteers.
3. Practice, practice, practice. Coach your team before you begin the day: “What do we do when x happens?” Coach your team as they’re going: “I noticed you said x when talking with that guest. Here’s the preferred terminology that will align with our language.” Coach your team as they end their shift: “What did we learn? What did we do well? How can we do it better next week?”
4. Review and revise. Don’t develop a checklist if it’s just going to get a first draft and never see the light of day again. Use your experience to develop new, more streamlined best practices. Ask your team for input. Stop doing what doesn’t work, and start doing what will work better.
Did you see the common theme running through all four tips? It all comes down to standards. Bodybuilders don’t walk into a gym and casually decide from one day to the next what they’re going to work on based on what they feel like. No, it is the discipline of developing certain muscle groups, on a certain schedule, with certain equipment, in a certain way. Just like muscles aren’t built haphazardly, neither should our muscle memory.
How has muscle memory benefitted your ministry?
Disclaimer: FTC watchdogs will probably want to know that the companies listed / linked above did not ask for this endorsement, nor did they provide me with free swag in order to do so. I’m just a really satisfied customer who wants to let you know where you can get some great products. So there. Further, if you order a resource from a link on this page, I may receive a small affiliate commission from Amazon. If that bugs you, feel free to bypass my link and buy from a vendor of your choice. But still: buy it. I only promote items that have benefitted me and that I believe will benefit you.